Randomness And Me

Until fairly recently I’ve at least sort of looked down on random encounters and charts and such. Not entirely mind you, but I had this feeling that they felt like a relic from an older time that were usually just not necessary in a “serious” campaign. It sort of felt to me that any “good GM” shouldn’t need such things as she should be able to either improvise something or have already come up with with “serious” story implications. Lately I’ve come around to randomness more though.

In my last post I mentioned the series of articles on random encounters that Steve Winter wrote about. But even before those articles I was starting to change my mind on randomness. First I had a few good experiences running some games of the recent incarnation of Gamma World and looking at all the fun the players had making sense of the randomly picked options they were presented with. I also read up on the concept of “gygaxian naturalism” after seeing the term a few times.

I actually think it was reading that article that gave me a bit of an “ah ha!” moment, where I realized that random encounters and percentage chances of this and that weren’t just there to allow for “lazy” GMing, but were there instead to simulate a natural world where things happen at varying frequencies. That the same factors that make the dice work to make combat exciting and interesting could be put to work in other aspects of the game too. It was then that I started to realize creating or choosing a random chart could actually be a very good method of preparation, just as valid or “deep” as any other method. It’s also a great way to avoid railroading things too much.

Randomness is one of the things that’s helped me understand the idea of “old school” gaming a lot more than I used to. For a long time I thought old school games were just simple hack and slash affairs with nothing really “important” happening in them and no good story. Now I see that they’re about the characters encountering a place or world and making their own stories through their actions in that world. In many ways it’s more collaborative storytelling than the way I’ve played some other games with that goal in mind. It’s also a good way to keep yourself on your toes as a GM and force you to do some improvising and even possibly some out of the box thinking to make sense of what the dice are telling you.

All of this is to say that I’ve come to appreciate the way that a bit of planned randomness can inject some life into a world and help to create a more “realistic” world for the players to interact with. It’s not all just up to the whims of the GM, some of it is simply the world asserting itself through the dice. It’s also fun when you’re GMing to be surprised by things!

This is not to say I don’t also see value in the sorts of games I have generally been playing and in other ways of doing things. I still like, and see value in story-driven games, or GM’s who improvise a lot of what the players encounter. The “Quantum Ogre” doesn’t really bother me all that much, though I see why it is a concern for some or how it could become a problem. But I think through my reading of some old school blogs and thinking about randomness and how it is used in older kinds of games I’ve come to appreciate something I never really did before.


Stephen B @DrOct